An Altar Built Of Unhewn Stones

October 28, 2001 / No. 3069

Dear Radio Friends,

Our broadcast today is in celebration of the glorious Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, ninety-five theses. By these theses he declared before the church that, upon the truth of the holy Scriptures, he found the teachings of the church contrary to God.

That event was to mark a great Reformation of the church, freeing the church from the superstitions of men placed upon the church, and returning the church to the glorious freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the spear-thrust of the Lutheran Reformation was the truth of justification by faith. Luther had learned from the Scriptures that there is only one way for a man to be right with God. That way is the way of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Reformation declared what the Scriptures teach, namely this: that it is the work of Christ alone upon the cross which can remove sin, that that work was once, it was complete, and it is finished, and that the only way of salvation is by grace to trust in Christ crucified alone and not in any work of men or any work of ourselves.

We will celebrate that truth today, for it is the truth that still lives in our hearts and in our souls, the truth that lives in the hearts of all of those who, by the grace of God, ask the question: “How shall I be right with God?” There is only one way, the sure way, the way of Christ crucified and risen.

The passage that we will use for our celebration is one in the Old Testament, Exodus 20:24-26. Please open your Bibles and read this passage.

Immediately after God gave the Ten Commandments through Moses, God spoke of an altar. In fact, Moses was to build an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God gave the Law. The Ten Commandments, then, as they came through Moses on Mount Sinai, were not given by God as a way of salvation. But they were given to show our sin and our need for a payment, a sacrifice for sin. Would you want God to deal with you today on the basis of His holy Law? Are there any so foolish, so proud, so blind to their own heart who would say to God, “Treat me as I deserve according to Thy law. By my works I can gain God’s approval.” No. God said an altar was needed. By that altar, God showed that there is only way for a sinner, convicted before the law of all of his ungodly deeds, to come before God. That way is a way of satisfaction, a way of payment for sin before the holy God. Sin must be paid. It must be punished. It must be cleansed away in the way of bearing the punishment that the sin deserved. But God revealed that He would provide the way, a way which would exclude all human merit and work, a way that we could approach only in deepest humility, a way in which He declared that if you tried to add any work of man as part of the payment, the whole business would be spoiled and corrupted.

God said that He must build an altar. And He did. It stood on Mount Calvary, Golgotha, the Hill of the Skull. It was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross in the place of all God’s elect. It was a sacrifice which was the payment for all and every one of their sins. We go to that sacrifice with joy. We do not climb up to that sacrifice. We do not pride ourselves for anything of ourselves. We do not rely upon anything in ourselves. But humbly we come to bow, to thank, to praise, to rejoice in the perfect work of our God through Jesus Christ.

Now for those who know the truth of the gospel, I will say very little that is new in the remainder of the message. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross alone can forgive sins. But the question is this: Do you rejoice in that? Do you know that? Do you renounce your horrible pride and sin, and by the grace of God do you trust in God alone?

God was speaking to Moses, in the verses that you read, about an altar, that it must be built of unhewn stones. As I was saying, the altar in the Old Testament expressed the need for forgiveness of sins. Altars of sacrifice were erected in various places: in the Tabernacle, and in the Temple of Solomon. On the altars, sacrifices were brought. The altar, then, was the confession that the offerers were sinful and that they looked to God to provide a payment for their sin.

The specifications for the building of an altar were barest simplicity, absolute plainness. No embellishment of any kind. We read, “an altar of earth (literally, gravel) thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee.” They were simply to mound up the earth as they traveled through the wilderness, simply dig with a shovel, mound up earth in a circle out of gravel for their altar. Or, that altar could be something more permanent. It could be made of stone. But then we read, “If thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” Hewn stones are stones that are cut with a tool, with a chisel and hammer. They are engraved. They are the work of a mason. God says, “No cut stones. Not something your hand has come upon to shape, to fit, smooth, or align.” And the specification was repeated whenever an altar was to be made upon which a sacrifice was to be given in the hope that God would provide a payment for sin. Always the specification is repeated: “thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them. Thou shalt build the altar of the LORD thy God of whole stones” (Deut. 27:5, 6). Again, in Joshua 8 we read, “Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel … as Moses the servant of the LORD commanded … as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron.”

It is very common to all false religion to build altars to God by the elaborate, skillful use of cut stones. The Incas and the Mayans did so, as well as the Egyptians and the Greeks. The work of a mason, the stone-cutter, the sculptor in displaying human skill – the very best work, the very best of man’s hands, his artistry is displayed in stone-cutting. But God said, “Upon My altar thou shalt not lift up thy tool. Thy hand shall not come upon it.”

Then God said, not only shall you not make it of hewn stones, but “Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar.” That is, the altar was not to be elevated. It was not to be placed on a platform to which one would ascend by steps. “Thou shalt not go up by steps unto my altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered.” Keep it on level ground. Again, how universally common to man, that places of the worship of the idol god, places of sacrifices where men believe that they will appease their god, are elevated and approached by steps and stately staircases. Think of the ruins in Mexico of the Mayans and the Aztecs, the temples, the series of carved-out steps reaching up, man climbing up to god. God says, “The way of atonement for your sin is not you going up.” You must know that you are separated from God spiritually by a distance you cannot bridge. The distance is too great for you to span. You cannot climb up to God by the steps of your making, by your works, by your prayers. These are not steps, building blocks, a ladder that you are making to get to heaven. “Thou shalt not go up by steps to My altar.”

What is the meaning? If you know the ABCs of the gospel of Christ, you already have interpreted it for yourselves. You understand that these specifications for the Old Testament altars were not arbitrary or whimsical. They were deliberate, to picture that which was dearest to God’s heart – to picture that the way of the payment for sin could not include anything of man’s contribution. No human work whatever can be included or added as the basis of pardon. You cannot approach God with anything in your hand of yourself, or given to you from the hand of another human being. God rejects it. All the efforts of self-improvement in deeds and charity, if they are performed out of the idea that these shall be received of God as a payment for sin, they cannot avail. We read in Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.” The approach to the payment made for sin can be in no other way than in the way of godly humility. So long as there exists in your soul the thought, “But I can do something to merit God’s favor. I’m not like other men, you know, so desperate and so vile, so wicked.” So long as those words are in your heart, you cannot know the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the only way to stand right with God. You cannot approach God of yourself. The only way is that perfect way of the altar that God built on Mount Calvary, the work that is all, entirely of God in Christ.

Why? Because, very plainly, all human works which are done to erase sin, if they are done for that motive, those works corrupt. God said, “Thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for if thou lift thy tool upon it, thou has polluted it.” That means more than saying simply, “It is not necessary.” God is not saying simply, “Well, Christ has done everything and it is nice that you thought about trying to do something to contribute but, really, it’s not necessary.” No, that is not what it means. God says, “Add your work as any part of the basis upon which you expect to be pardoned from your sin and you’ve corrupted the whole business. You have defiled, ruined it! You’ve polluted it. You’ve spoiled it. You’ve rendered it useless. No, worse, the word is ‘pollute, spoil.’ You’ve rendered it offensive, noxious to the nostrils of God. You have offered polluted bread upon My altar.” God says, “Approach Me for acceptance and mercy and love on the basis of anything other than what Christ has done for you, and whatever that thing is is a stench to Me.”

The reason for our acceptance with God, the basis for our pardon of sin, is the work of God alone in Christ. Add something to it and you spoil it. The message of the book of Galatians is simply that a Christ supplemented (that is, added to Christ) is a Christ supplanted (taken away). “Behold, I Paul say unto you,” Galatians 5:2, “that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” That is, Paul is saying that if you think that you must perform this rite of circumcision in order now truly to be saved, if that is what you are thinking and that is why you were circumcised, Christ profits you nothing. The gospel is not Christ and. It is Christ alone. It is Christ alone or nothing.

You ask, what about my prayers, my repentance, my good works? Does that not count? Does that not add up to something? The answer to that is: All of those things are the fruit of Christ saving you. They are the work of Christ earned for you upon the cross. They are not the reason for your salvation. If you are not living a life of repentance, you are deceived. If you are not praying, you are terribly disobedient. But the motive for repentance and prayer is not that these will be the things that save you. No! These are the expressions of the understanding that Christ is your Savior, and that is why we turn from our sins and that is why we pray. Not your works! Not the intercession of a priest or a saint. Not your good character. Christ alone. Christ alone for salvation.

But there is another reason. All human works that are done out of the motive to save, thinking that our works are able to take away our sins, expose our nakedness. God says, “Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” There is a picture here. There is the picture of a man going up the steps to an altar; long, high steps. The priest in those days would wear a robe. The higher they went up, the angle of vision allowed others to see more of their legs and their thighs. A gust of wind might come along to spread the skirt, and their nakedness would be exposed and they would be shamed. Pride exposes nakedness. Self-righteousness is such a self-exposing thing. Self-righteousness exposes us as naked before God.

These were the Lord’s words to the Pharisees in His day. The Pharisees exalted themselves. They climbed up high. They thought they were climbing higher than anyone else before them. They were saying, “We’re not sinners, at least not like those publicans. We fast, we tithe, we give alms. We’re making our way up.” And the Lord’s words came and searched out their hearts, and all the hatred in those hearts against God and their neighbor. And the Lord’s words were like wind lifting up their robes and exposing the shame of their sin. That is why they hated Him. He would say to the Pharisees, “You tithe to the extreme. You tithe over things that the law said you don’t even have to tithe – mint and cummin – little seeds. You are overly righteous. But when it comes to the weighty matters of the law – showing justice and truth – where are you then? What about the widow’s house that you foreclosed on yesterday? What about the pride that you want to be called ‘master,’ and ‘father.’ You stand here condemning others. But what about your own heart? The more lofty you raise yourself up before others in your pride, thinking that your works are so noble and right, the more you become exposed in your nakedness before God.” Pride and self-righteousness expose shame.

Did that ever happen to you? Did you ever place yourself up high before others and before your children? You began to criticize others. You began to judge others. You say, “Why, look at them! You would think they would know better. I don’t do that.” And in an unsuspecting moment your little child caught you at the same thing that you were just criticizing the other person for. There you stood in your pride – naked.

There is a principle here. Lay it to heart. When we exalt ourselves in pride, the higher up we go, the only thing we succeed in doing is exposing our nakedness and the shame of our sin. Do not go up to the altar lest your nakedness be discovered. Get on your knees.

You see, you cannot come to the cross proud. You cannot come any other way but in the way of the knowledge of the Holy Spirit of your personal shame and guilt for your sin. You cannot bow before the cross and say, “Boy, that person there sure needs forgiveness for what he did to me! I wonder how he can even show his face in church.” Do you ever say that? God says, “The higher you climb, the more naked you are.”

You must come before God in the grace of abject humility and in the only hope that the blood of Christ can cleanse every stain. And, praise be God, it has!

I come before God knowing I shall be accepted, not because I think that God really knows I am a good person at heart. Thanks for Christ, but, nevertheless, I’m not as desperate and I am not as foul and wretched as someone else. We cannot come that way. We are all prone to do that. We are all prone to climb the ladder to God. If you do, God will expose your nakedness. We come without a plea except that Christ, by grace, shed His blood for us.

God built the altar. He made it of earth and stone. Jesus Christ was made a man, man who was taken from the ground. Christ was made like unto us in all things except sin. Christ humbled Himself. Christ came under the penalty of sin for the people of God. He bore the punishment due to their sins. And He was stone. He was the sinless Son of God anointed by the Spirit of God. He was that Rock who trusted in God. And God made the altar His own Son. On that altar of Mount Calvary, in the year A.D. 33, the sins of God’s people were paid. A way was made to the Father. Atonement was brought, perfect atonement. We are reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. We are justified, forgiven, in the sacrifice of His dear Son. And all of it was the Lord’s doing. It is marvelous in our eyes. The work and the obedience of Jesus Christ opened the way, gained our acceptance, secured pardon full and free. It is proclaimed in the cross, and in the cross alone.

This is the Reformation. And we follow the truth of the Reformation, the truth of the Scriptures. We follow it in humility – a triumphant humility. No, that is not a contradiction. A humility – knowing ourselves so that we cannot lift our head, brokenhearted, knowing that our sins brought all this grief upon our Lord – but a humility that pleases God, for it is His work. And God lifts us up, not in pride, but in wonder and in awe and in praise.

Thanks, thanks, Lord. Thanks for the altar made of unhewn stones. Thanks for the perfect sacrifice of Thy Son. And we repeat from the heart: “Not the labor of my hands could fulfill Thy laws demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my love forever flow, these for sin could not atone; Thou must save and Thou alone.”

Father, thanks for the work of Jesus Christ, perfect, complete, and sure. Amen.